The 49-page indictment against Donald Trump for mishandling classified documents and obstructing justice is largely focused on how boxes of sensitive documents ended up crammed into the nooks, crannies and even a chandelier-adorned bathroom of Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
But two of the indictment’s most vivid scenes took place about 1,200 miles to the north.
Prosecutors accuse Trump of showing off classified documents to employees and others not authorized to see them — not once, but twice at his sprawling golf club on the rural plains of New Jersey.
According to the indictment, Trump bragged in July 2021 about a sensitive military plan with two of his staffers, as well as the writer and publisher of a forthcoming book from his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, during a session at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
In an audio recording of the session near the club’s pool, Trump can be heard acknowledging the secrecy of the documents to the group — who included communications staffers Liz Harrington and Margo Martin, according to people familiar with the matter, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the criminal case.
“See, as president I could have declassified it. Now I can’t,” Trump tells the group on the recording, which was obtained this week by The Washington Post. “Isn’t that interesting? It’s so cool.”
One or two months later, according to the indictment, Trump showed a sensitive government map to an employee of his political action committee during a meeting at Bedminster. No similar incidents are described at Trump’s club in Florida, where the indictment was filed.
Trump’s behavior in New Jersey is yet another data point showing that the former president did not simply stash the boxes of sensitive documents, unopened and untouched, in the basement of his Florida club and forget about them. Instead, advisers said he was personally attached to and hyper-aware of the boxes, instructing that at least some of them accompany him from place-to-place, and appeared aware of what was inside.
Federal authorities have asked witnesses extensive questions about activities at Bedminster, including about how the documents were packed, sent and returned, people familiar with the matter said.
Unlike Trump’s Florida property, the New Jersey club was never searched by FBI agents, but current and former advisers said Trump regularly transported boxes of government documents to and from Bedminster, where he holds residence each year for the summer.
By the time the FBI conducted a court-ordered search in August, agents had collected surveillance video that showed boxes of documents being moved at Mar-a-Lago and conducted interviews with staff about Trump’s habits in Florida. People familiar with the case said they did not believe there was enough evidence to convince a judge to order a similar search in New Jersey.
The people said that as the investigation proceeded and more information was gathered, there was little desire to order an involuntary search of a second home of the former president — particularly because his lawyers were in communication with authorities about searches they were conducting to ensure no more records were in Trump’s possession. Investigators have long believed the large majority of documents Trump took from the White House were stored in Florida.
After raiding Mar-a-Lago last year, federal prosecutors pressed Trump’s legal team to certify that he had no additional classified material in his possession. A discussion about when and how to search the New Jersey club for additional documents set off a rift between Trump’s lawyers that ultimately contributed to some of them quitting the team this year.
Bedminster is not a private home. Rather, it is a club frequented by hundreds of visitors and a destination for large events.
The vast estate on 500 acres of sleepy farmland featuring a red-brick manor house was purchased in 1981 for $3.5 million by John Z. DeLorean, the independent car manufacturer best known for creating the gull-winged stainless steel sports car featured in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” At the time, it was most expensive residential real estate deal ever brokered in New Jersey.
But DeLorean struggled with legal and financial problems for years and, in 2000, finally declared bankruptcy and auctioned off the bucolic estate to a golf course developer. Trump purchased the course and estate two years later for what he claimed at the time was “substantially” less than $35 million.
Trump opened his Trump National Golf Club Bedminster for business in 2004 over the July Fourth weekend. Pre-presidency, the club served as a destination for high-profile golf and tennis tournaments, as well as a venue for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s lavish wedding. “Wouldn’t you want to be buried here?” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
During his presidential transition, he interviewed candidates for his cabinet there, resulting in a made-for-television spectacle that was broadcast across network news.
While president, Trump would frequently decamp from Washington to his New Jersey club and hold meetings with top government officials there, particularly in the summer months. There, he installed a makeshift office among the luxury cottages that surround the club’s 25-meter swimming pool and has resided in a separate cottage in the same complex, where he stores his belongings, according to people who have visited.
At least some of his prized “beautiful mind paper boxes” — a phrase used by aides to describe his complicated and disorganized filing system that only he seemed to understand — usually trailed close behind him, staying in his private cottage.
People familiar with his unofficial filing system said Trump was keenly aware of the contents of the boxes — and exactly what was being taken to and from the clubs.
“There was this false notion he didn’t know what was in the boxes,” said a person closely involved in his operation who has been interviewed by federal authorities. A different aide described Trump rifling through boxes looking for a particular newspaper clipping, somehow knowing exactly where the old story would be found.
Above one of the cottages, while Trump was president, staff installed a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, an ultra-secure room where officials and government contractors can review highly classified material, where Trump held sensitive meetings as president and reviewed secret documents.
Aides said they preferred when Trump vacationed at Bedminster while president than when he spent time at Mar-a-Lago, which he frequented in winter months. One adviser said there were fewer “crazies” among the membership of the less flashy New Jersey club and fewer opportunities to bend his ear around the pool or over dinner about their pet issues.
After Trump left office in January 2021, he spent his first months out of office in Florida.
According to the indictment, by then, dozens of boxes filled with government records shipped to Florida from the White House had been carted around the Palm Beach club, moved from the White and Gold Ballroom to the club’s business center to a chandeliered bathroom. But in May, the indictment alleges, “Trump caused some of his boxes to be brought to his summer residence at The Bedminster Club.” Prosecutors note in the indictment that, at the time, the club was “not an authorized location” for storing or reviewing classified records.
At Bedminster, Trump’s habits and routines at the club were strikingly consistent with his life at Mar-a-Lago, according to people familiar with his schedule.
After waking, he would spend hours watching television, play golf four or five days a week, then change and venture into his office for meetings before dinner at the club.
The Bedminster club inherited one feature of Trump’s life in the White House of which he was especially fond — a roughly $50,000 room-size “golf simulator” game, surrounded by two walls featuring oversize presidential seals, that was transferred to the club from his personal quarters in the White House after he had it installed in 2019 to play virtual rounds at golf courses all over the world.
Trump’s personal aide, Waltine Nauta, who worked for him in the White House while enlisted in the U.S. Navy and then moved to Florida to serve him in private life, often slept in bedrooms located on the upper floor of the cottage where Trump keeps his office — part of the building designed for staff offices. Nauta has been indicted along with Trump and has been charged with helping him hide government records from federal authorities.
Due to space constraints, Trump’s staff has utilized the porch off one of the cottages as a waiting room of sorts for visitors.
Trump often plays the role of DJ, curating music for guests, or emcee, surprising a bride and groom during their wedding — an occurrence that is sometimes documented on the social media accounts of the couple or their guests.
In keeping with his habit of mixing work, business and pleasure, he hosted a tournament last year for LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league, an event that netted him millions of dollars, according to people familiar with the arrangement.
Still, the club has a distinctly more low-key vibe than his Palm Beach resort, people who have visited both clubs said. While membership still carries a hefty price, more families with children spend time at the New Jersey club, creating a different environment than the more socialite-heavy crowd at Mar-a-Lago, they said.
In his book, “The Chief’s Chief,” Meadows wrote that the July 2021 meeting where Trump described the military invasion plan for Iran took place not far from the Bedminster pool.
“The sound of children laughing drifts into the room from the club’s pool, which sits just outside of the president’s new office,” he wrote. “The boss leans back in his chair, dressed in a sport coat and a crisp white shirt that’s open at the neck. He looks at least twenty pounds lighter than he was in office.”
On the audio recording, Trump can be heard shuffling papers and telling the group that the document was “highly confidential.” The recording, according to people familiar with the investigation, was discovered late in the probe and is viewed as one of the government’s strongest pieces of evidence.
“Secret. This is secret information,” Trump said, adding later that “this is still a secret.”
“Yeah, now we have a problem,” responded a staffer, who people familiar with the matter identified as Liz Harrington.
Harrington did not respond to requests for comment other than to point to a statement from a Trump spokesman who said that the audio shows Trump was “speaking rhetorically and also quite humorously” and that the former president “did nothing wrong at all.”
Investigators learned of the audio in recent months, and it quickly emerged as a key piece of evidence in the case.
Responding to the audio on Tuesday, Trump said in a statement: “As we’ve been saying from the moment President Trump rode down the golden escalator, the President did nothing wrong.”
A lawyer for Martin declined to comment about her participation in the meeting.
Also present at the meeting was Kate Hartson, a publishing veteran who co-founded a conservative imprint called All Seasons Press in 2021 that put out the Meadows book, and another person involved with the project, Sean McGowan. Hartson did not respond to request for comment, and McGowan could not be reached. Neither responded to messages left through the publishing house.
In the indictment, prosecutors allege that none of the four held a security clearance “or any need-to-know any classified information about a plan of attack on Country A,” which has been identified by people familiar with the session as Iran.
The audio suggests that the session was a breezy and light one.
“It’s incredible, right?” Trump said to the group before announcing, “Hey, bring some Cokes in, please.”
According to the indictment, Trump also showed an unnamed representative of his political action committee a classified map of what is described as “Country B” in August or September of 2021, commenting that military action in the country was not going well. He allegedly told the person that he knew he shouldn’t be sharing the map and urged them not to get too close.
The following year, as Trump prepared to return to Bedminster from Mar-a-Lago, he had been clashing for months with the government over sensitive documents he had kept after leaving the White House. In May 2022, authorities sent him a grand jury subpoena seeking the return of any document with classification markings.
According to the indictment, Trump delayed his departure for New Jersey so that he could be present when his lawyer, Evan Corcoran, met with personnel from the Justice Department and FBI who visited Mar-a-Lago on June 3, 2022, to recover documents with classification markings.
In the days leading up to the meeting, Trump and Nauta corresponded extensively, as Nauta moved approximately 64 boxes from the storage room to Trump’s residence, the indictment alleges. An unidentified Trump family member texted Nauta on May 30, 2022, after noticing the boxes in Trump’s residence, to warn him about packing too many boxes on the plane when the family left for Bedminster.
“We will NOT have a room for them. Plane will be full with luggage. Thank you!” the text read, according to the indictment.
Nauta responded that he thought Trump “wanted to pick from them” and didn’t “imagine him wanting to take the boxes,” according to the indictment.
Nauta and others then loaded “several of Trump’s boxes along with other items on aircraft that flew Trump and his family north for the summer,” according to the indictment.
On Aug. 8, the FBI conducted a court-ordered search of Mar-a-Lago, seizing 102 documents with classification markings from Trump’s office and the club’s ground-floor storage room.
In October 2022, Trump’s lawyers hired an outside team to conduct searches of his properties beyond Mar-a-Lago to see if any additional records were still at his facilities. It came as Trump’s legal team was being pressed by a federal judge in sealed court proceedings to attest that it had fully complied with the May grand jury subpoena to turn over all classified materials.
But Trump’s lawyers clashed with one another over searching Bedminster, with Boris Epshteyn questioning the need and expressing concerns, according to people familiar with the matter.
Other lawyers favored the New Jersey search, and at least three of them have quit since then, privately citing differences with Epshteyn. One lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said in an appearance on CNN on May 20 that Epshteyn “didn’t want us doing the search, and we had to eventually overcome him.”
The Bedminster search was ultimately conducted in late October, and Trump’s lawyers informed the Justice Department that the outside team did not find any new classified document.
Espshteyn declined to comment.
When Trump’s indictment was unsealed this month, the former president was, as usual, at Bedminster. Members of his campaign and legal teams hustled to New Jersey to join him there. Trump was said to be dining on the patio in the evening and playing golf the next day.
Recently, Trump’s legal team has hunkered down on the property in a room painted olive green in the main clubhouse, according to people familiar with the team’s activity. Alina Habba, a lawyer on Trump’s team, has conducted interviews from the room, appearing in television appearances sitting between an American flag and a black-and-white silhouetted portrait of Trump’s scowling face.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.